Benjamin Franklin's "An Open Letter to Lord North" revealed his genius as well as the quiet confidence and puckish humor of the American people chaffing under British rule.
Franklin's 1774 missive, published in a British newspaper, was composed in London's Smyrna Coffee House on St. James Street. This was not your local Starbucks. For more than a century, Smyrna Coffee House had been a meeting place of political liberals -- and its invocation by Franklin was code.
But British officials, and most especially Lord North himself, missed that cue -- and others as well. Franklin's suggestion that martial law be imposed over the colonies was satiric, as were his deadpan assertions that "one born in Britain is equal to twenty Americans" and that the only thing that would motivate the "Yankee Doodles" was the lash.
Ben Franklin was one of this country's first journalists, and we could use more of his wit -- and tolerance -- in the media today. Last night on Jay Leno's talk show, NBC's David Gregory made some rather clanking remarks about Mitt Romney's religion.
"I think it's an issue," Gregory told Leno. "I think a lot of people have questions about the Mormon faith -- there's a lot of ignorance about the Mormon faith -- and let's be honest, this is the core of who Mitt Romney is. He was a missionary in France for two years. He has been a bishop in the church, which, in the Mormon church, is effectively like a priest. Philanthropically, he's made huge contributions. He's had a big impact on the church. And yet he doesn't talk about it. It's the core of who he is, and yet he doesn't feel like it's safe to talk about."
Well, why would he, in our current political environment?
I was reminded last night of Ben Franklin, who believed both in God and in the positive role organized religion played in American life -- but who had little time for people who get all worked up over doctrinal differences that divide the faiths.
Franklin acted on this belief, too, raising money for the construction of a hall in Philadelphia that would be "expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something." And Franklin meant any preacher: "Even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us," he added, "he would find a pulpit at his service."
"I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue," Franklin wrote on another occasion. "And the Scripture assures me that at the last day we shall not be examined by what we thought, but what we did ... that we did good to our fellow creatures..."
As Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson noted in a 2003 Time magazine essay:
By the end of his life, he had contributed to the building funds of each and every sect in Philadelphia, including £5 for the Congregation Mikveh Israel for its new synagogue in April 1788. During the July 4 celebrations that year, he was too sick to leave his bed, but the parade marched under his window. For the first time, as per arrangements that Franklin had overseen, "the clergy of different Christian denominations, with the rabbi of the Jews, walked arm in arm."
And when he was carried to his grave two years later, his casket was accompanied by all the clergymen of the city, every one of them, of every faith.